The Fall of Kings by Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman. ★★★1/2
The Fall of Kings is chronologically the last novel set in Ellen Kushner’s Riverside. While it stands on its own, I would recommend starting with one of the other works – Tremontaine, Swordspoint or The Privilege of the Sword.
In her novel Swordspoint, Ellen Kushner crafted a fantasy setting without magic, full of scheming nobles and swordsmen for hire. It’s a setting without homophobia or heteronormativity, and same-sex relationships are common. Much of the cast of the series is either gay, lesbian, or, most commonly, bisexual. The Fall of Kings is set sixty years after Swordspoint. Most of the original characters are dead, and the torch has been passed down to their children and grandchildren.
Theron Campion is the heir to the house of Tremontaine, but has recently exited a scandalous love affair with an artist. He takes solace in the university where he meets Basil St. Cloud, a young magister who holds controversial views regarding the ancient kings and their wizards and historical methodology. But with unrest in the North and some agitating for the return of the kings, Theron and Basil find themselves at the center of something greater than they ever could have imagined.
The Fall of Kings is much more mythic in tone than other Riverside stories. It’s a larger perspective, looking back into the history of the country and of its old kings and wizards. It’s also the only Riverside story so far to feature magic in any capacity. And while I wouldn’t say any of the other Riverside books I’ve read have been necessarily happily ever after (although The Privilege of the Sword comes the closest), The Fall of Kings is the most tragic. It’s basically a slowly unfolding disaster, and by a certain point I knew it couldn’t possibly end well.
On the other hand, it can be hard to grieve for either Theron or Basil. There were moments where I felt sympathetic for them, but they are both so utterly self centered. Despite their protestations of love, there didn’t seem to be much more to their relationship than sex. Combined with some atrocious behavior on Theron’s part, it’s no wonder that the relationship implodes. Seriously, if Alec’s famously been called the “boyfriend from hell,” Theron gives him a run for his money.
The cast of characters is almost predominantly male. There are a few female characters (Katherine, Sophia, Jessica), but we never get to spend much time with them, although Jessica at least does get to effect the plot. It actually makes a lot of sense that this was written before The Privilege of the Sword, where the female characters do have more of a presence at the story line actually examines the patriarchal society it’s established instead of leaving it unquestioned.
While The Fall of Kings is far from my favorite Riverside story, it has reminded me of two things. Firstly, Ellen Kushner (and presumably Delia Sherman, her co-author here) is an absolutely brilliant writer. She’s someone who really knows how to craft prose. Secondly, Riverside has one a place in my heart. I love seeing the same setting and sometimes characters over the course of the eighty odd years this series spans. I really need to track down those short stories Ellen Kushner set between books…
I would strongly recommend the Riverside novels to anyone who’s a fan of fantasy driven by intrigue instead of magic or stories focused around queer characters. However, The Fall of Kings is not the book I would recommend starting the series with.